IRON COUNTY – Citing both anger and fear following the termination of Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Jody Edwards in the wake of the County Commission’s decision to privatize ambulance service earlier this year, Iron County Sheriff’s Office has joined the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees.
Edwards was in charge of the Iron County Sheriff’s Division of Emergency Services. He was among 70 individuals who lost their jobs following the County Commission’s vote to privatize ambulance service in March.
“A lot of people see commission getting rid of him as a retaliatory move because he stood up to them,” Iron County Sheriff’s Sgt. Nik Johnson said.
Edwards, a veteran of over 20 years with the Sheriff’s Office, was among the more vocal opponents to the County Commission’s move to sell off the county ambulance service. County ambulance service was picked up by Gold Cross Ambulance, and Edwards and others attached to the ambulance division were let go as a part of the county’s RIF (Reduction In Force) policy.
There was a general understanding, Johnson said, like in any other organization or business, it’s usually the newest hires who are the first to go. He said the policy had been charged by the County Commission to allow them to get rid of whoever they wanted.
“They changed that and then used that policy to get rid of Lt. Edwards,” Johnson said. “And to everybody else, that basically told them that, anytime, you can let go without any discipline process or due process at all. … That was the tipping point for us – where we as employees felt we needed some kind of protection.”
The Sheriff’s Office employees subsequently contacted and joined the AFSMCE.
“It angered and frightened them,” Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said. “… Because of what happened to Lt. Edwards when they terminated him unlawfully …. That’s the whole reasoning behind this. They feel they have no protections. They feel my authority as sheriff has been taken and they feel the commission can come in and get rid of anybody.”
Edwards was a part of the Sheriff’s Office before being put in charge of the ambulance service when the county made it a division of the Sheriff’s Office in January 2013.
“Lt. Edwards wasn’t an ambulance employee, he was a sheriff’s employee,” Johnson said.
Edwards appealed his termination before the Iron County Career Service Council. The council sided with Edwards and said the county should reinstate him with full pay and back pay. The Iron County Commission has appealed the council’s decision and taken the matter to the 5th District Court for a judicial review.
Following the county’s appeal of the council’s decision, Gower said, the policies that allowed employees to appeal were changed so a termination couldn’t be appealed.
“They took away all appeals for employees like Lt. Edwards,” Gower said. “And then they also passed a policy that says they can change the policy at any time for any reason.”
The policy changes not only affect his office, Gower said, but the entire county.
A matter of budget, not retaliation
Edwards’ removal was not a retaliatory measure, Iron County Commissioner David Miller said. Edwards and the rest of the ambulance division staff were let go because the division just didn’t exist anymore.
“Everyone’s on good standing (with the county) that left with the ambulance closure,” Miller said.
Moreover, according to the appeal the County Commission sent to the court, wages paid to Edwards and others were funded through revenue gained from the users of the ambulance service and not the county budget.
“There was no funding for anyone, including Edwards,” Miller said. “I think it’s been pushed in a way that’s not accurate.”
The county didn’t have the budget for a new position for Edwards, Miller said, nor did the commission feel a new one should be created. Positions with the Sheriff’s Office have opened up that were comparable to what Edwards had been paid before, Miller said, and Edwards was made aware of those but didn’t apply for them.
Ultimately, it’s up to the sheriff to take Edwards back on when a position opens up, Miller said. The termination was simply because they didn’t have a position open or the revenue available at the time to make it happen.
“When a position opens, move him in,” Miller said.
While Edwards is free to apply for any position at any time, Miller also confirmed that the Iron County Attorney’s Office had been looking into potential “suspect purchases that were outside of policy” allegedly made by Edwards using ambulance funds.
The county attorney subsequently requested the Utah Attorney General’s Office look into the matter as well, he said.
“Pay is an issue here”
Pay is another item the Sheriff’s Office has attempted to address with the County Commission, Gower said.
“We are on the low end of the pay scale compared to other agencies,” he said.
Gower put a report together to present to the County Commission in July concerning the pay issue. According to his report, Iron County Sheriff’s deputies start out at just over $15 an hour, while Cedar City Police officers start out at over $17.
The sheriff was to be on the agenda for a commission meeting in July, he said, but he was removed from the agenda and told he had nothing of value to add.
“I was trying to start a dialogue,” Gower said.
“There are some imbalances,” Miller said, “we know that.”
The County Commission has been conducting its own comparative wage study for the last seven months, he said.
“Pay is an issue here,” Gower reiterated, adding that one of his deputies told him that, while they tried to make ends meet on their “meager pay,” they are all willing to have union dues taken out of those checks so they have some protection from the County Commission overrunning them.
To bargain or not to bargain
“We have no desire to interfere with anyone’s right to assemble,” Miller said concerning the Sheriff’s Office joining the AFSCME.
As for the worries expressed by the Sheriff’s Office employees, he said they shouldn’t fear for their jobs.
“There’s a misconception there,” Miller said.
Prior to the County Commission’s Oct. 12 meeting, both Gower and Justin Miller, the executive director of the AFSCME Local 1004 out of Salt Lake City, submitted agenda items. Gower had asked for time to address the commission while Justin Miller submitted a resolution for the county to enter into collective bargaining with the union.
Both items were taken off the agenda Oct. 9.
Instead, the County Commission passed a resolution reserving the right not to enter into collective bargaining.
“That’s all well and good,” Justin Miller said, “but it doesn’t end the conversation.”
One of the biggest concerns Justin Miller said he has is the policy changes that can negatively impact county employees. He also said the issues with Edwards show what the County Commission would do to an employee that doesn’t agree with them.
“There are quite a few county employees paying attention,” Justin Miller said, adding he’s been contacted by county employees outside of the Sheriff’s Office with concerns of their own.
“This would have happened with or without my support,” Gower said about the Sheriff’s Office employees unionizing, “but I’m fully supportive and stand by the people I work with.”
The County Commission supports the Sheriff’s Office and would rather not get involved with how it’s run, Miller said. The commission and sheriff should also be able to come together and come to a mutual solution – just not necessarily in front of a public audience during a commission meeting, he said.
“I hope we’re able to get a quality conversation with the County Commission,” Justin Miller said.
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